At FC Bayern Munich, the traditionally very self-absorbed German record champions, they still can’t quite believe that Pep Guardiola watched hours of match footage of Red Bull Salzburg in January 2014 - the talented Austrians were only opponents in a friendly, after all. (Roger Schmidt’s team won 3-0 incidentally).
If the Spanish coach is unlucky, he may well be forced to request videos of even more exotic opponents soon: teams such as Balzan FC of Malta or Norway’s splendidly named FC Bødo/Glimt. Yes, Manchester City, fourth in the table after the 1-0 derby defeat to Manchester United on Sunday, might well meet sides of that calibre in the qualification round for the Europa League next season. But that still wouldn’t stop Guardiola describing them as a “top, top team” with “perfect counter-attacking.”
City, who’ll contest their first-ever Champions League quarter-final next month, had, until recently, played uninspired but acceptable football this season. In November, they were top of the table, but Manuel Pellegrini’s men have now lost five out of their last ten games, and their form at home has been shocking (five defeats). The Chilean, usually so calm and collected, lost his rag when a TV interviewer pressed him on underlying reasons for the malaise on Sunday. “I only talk about the game,” he barked, and walked out.
In England, most people think City’s collapse is due to the club’s announcement of Guardiola’s arrival next season. Pellegrini, a man who you’d half expect to be just as grey underneath his clothes, makes for a convincing proponent of the lame duck syndrome. “I haven’t lose the control (of the dressing room)”, the 62-year-old insisted, however.
In truth, City’s struggles predate the Guardiola news. The current crisis is the result of a long process of regression. Under Pellegrini, the side have never managed to consistently play at a level that’s significantly above the sum of their individual talents, their win of the 2014 championship notwithstanding. They’re just as dependable on Sergio Agüero’s goals, on Yaya Touré’s (increasingly sporadic) energy bursts, on Vincent Kompany’s and Joe Hart’s authority at the back as they were three years ago. The latter two are now injured, as is €80m recruit Kevin De Bruyne, who lit up City’s attacking game until he picked up an injury at the end of January. Teammate Raheem Sterling has been largely underwhelming, apart from a few flickers of brilliance. The England winger, too, will be missed over the course of the next month (groin injury).
The extent of the world’s wealthiest club’s problems is not just evident in table. Even more worryingly, Louis van Gaal’s team, the least convincing edition of the Red Devils in 30 years, looked younger, fresher, more mobile and more coherent in comparison to their neighbours at the Etihad stadium. United, sixth in table and one point adrift of City, can concentrate on the chase for the Champions League places now that they’re no longer involved in the Europa League, whereas Pellegrini will have to take his depleted side into the quarter-final against PSG next month.
For Guardiola – who’s been hired to win the Champions League – it will be slightly more difficult to recruit players if City’s participation in Europe’s top competition is not guaranteed. On the other hand, his future employer’s unexpected problems will be of some benefit to him personally. The (rather ludicrous) complaint that he’s again opted for the easy choice in City after coaching Bayern and Barcelona won’t be voiced quite as often if his team is in action on Thursday nights next season.